A few short months ago it was incomprehensible that we’d see a festival in the UK this summer, but the government’s pilot scheme gave Download Festival the opportunity for 10,000 negative-tested revellers to descend onto the hallowed ground at Donington.
It’s weird at first; there is no denying that. No masks. No social distancing. Every precaution that’s been drilled into us in the last year forgotten for the sake of a testing ground to discover if we can once again safely be in a large crowd on a regular basis.
After the first hour or two of thinking and saying to anyone who will listen “this is so weird”, there are moments of complete amnesia. The mosh pits grow, the crowds pack, long lost friends run at one another and embrace, while others awkwardly but thoughtfully negotiate the level of contact they’re ready for, but human contact and community returns gradually. The rain falls sideways, the music is deafening, the beer weak, the toilets vile, and the food overpriced – and it’s all perfect and as it should be.
Whether it’s the music, the social interaction, the fleeting freedoms or the rare opportunity to be carefree for a weekend, the relief is palpable. The shoulders drop, the tension eases, the anxiety subsides, and the sighs of relief are audible; we’ve almost survived.
As for the line-up, it was quickly cobbled together within three weeks of the festival starting, but it’s a refreshing approach to Download with a lot of the familiar gatekeepers of the festival – the classic rock contingent and the big-name American bands – nowhere to be seen in favour of embracing the wealth of British talent that rarely gets a chance on the biggest stages. Here are some picks from across the weekend.
Tasked with getting the show started on the Main Stage, in the rain and in front of a crowd tentatively feeling their way around the surreal experience of being back together at a festival, Hot Milk bring a party. Enthusiastically barrelling in, Han Mee instantly decks it on the rain-soaked stage but swiftly recovers to break into their shiny new single ‘I JUST WANNA KNOW WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I’M DEAD’ from their upcoming EP of the same name. With their energy not letting up – high kicks, spins and jumping down into crowd – Hot Milk bolt through a number of new tracks alongside huge poppy anthems like ‘Candy Coated Lie$’ and ‘Awful Ever After’ to bring their set to a close and any anxieties in the crowd completely abandoned.
If a song could possibly give some context to the last 18 months of our lives, then Boston Manor’s opener ‘Everything Is Ordinary’ is it. It’s the first opportunity, and fittingly too, to hear the tracks of frustration and conflict that make up their album ‘GLUE’, which landed just as the first lockdown started. “This is nothing short of a miracle,” singer Henry Cox marvels before they launch in ‘Brand New Kids’, prompting a sea of limbs pouring out from the crowd and over the barrier. It was a Main Stage slot that Boston Manor have deserved over the last few years, and as swirling power of ‘Halo’ hit, it was proof this is exactly where they belong.
“If we’re Boris’s lab rats, then let’s give them some fucking data,” encourages Ben Barlow as the pop-punk outfit tear through a hit-packed set. Having released their latest album, ‘All Distortions Are Intentional’, during the lockdown, this is the first chance for fans to hear new tracks like ‘Sonderland’, ‘Lowlife’ and ‘Sick Joke’ while promising to play more of the album when they tour next year. Smashing through older tunes like ‘Can’t Kick Up The Roots’ and ‘Motion Sickness’, there is no denying the Wrexham lads leave everything out on the stage after two years away from playing any live shows, as the singer gives a breathless tribute to all in attendance for giving him a purpose again. Rounding off their set with ‘In Bloom’, the song becomes even more poignant for the longing of a life post-pandemic.
Plunged into moody lighting, cloaked and behind their masks, Sleep Token bring one of the most atmospheric performances at Download Pilot. Previewing their upcoming second album with new single ‘Alkaline’, it’s a flash, a glimpse, into the power the enigmatic outfit possess and the direction they could be about to expand into. Soulful, dizzying, symphonic explosions decorate their set for one of the most truly engaging, absolutely unmissable, performances of the weekend.
At the best of times, Frank Carter has the raw, dangerous, energy of a caged, provoked animal, so it’s to no one’s surprise when all social distancing goes out of the window the second he appears on stage. Half running through a rendition of ‘Trouble’, Frank and guitarist Dean Richardson pile straight into the crowd. As they settle in, Frank calls on a few friends with IDLES’s frontman Joe Talbot joining for new single ‘My Town’ while Cassyette and Lynks come out as The Rattlesnakes tease their impending fourth album. Sitting modern rock classics like ‘Wild Flowers’, ‘Kitty Sucker’ and ‘Juggernaut’ side by side, Frank Carter earns the right to take on a cover of ‘Ace of Spades’ as they bring a truly wild set to a typically chaotic finale.
If it looks like a rock star, walks like a rock star, and sounds like a rock star, then it’s probably a rock star. That’s exactly what you get from Wargasm. They’re a few songs short of a full setlist beyond their devastating punk rock singles ‘Pyro Pyro’ and ‘Spit.’, so they fill out their set with a filthy cover of N.E.R.D’s ‘Lapdance’ and Metallica’s ‘Fuel’ for good measure.
“Holy fucking shit, I’m shite-ing myself right now!” beams Janine Shilstone as Vukovi seize their moment on the Second Stage. They give a debut to new single ‘KILL IT’, which sits comfortably alongside newer tunes ‘Violent Minds’ and ‘Behave’ from their more adventurous 2020 album ‘Fall Better’. But after announcing, “I’m coming down here now, it’s fucking shite up here,” the Scottish singer gets down and face to face with the crowd as they rifle through old favourites ‘Animal’ and ‘La Di Da’ for one of the most fun sets of the weekend.
Clinching victory from the jaws of defeat, Yonaka overcome a few technical issues to deliver a fun-filled set drenched in Main Stage sunshine. Having played their first two songs with no sound output, they rescue their set by replaying ‘Punch Bag’ before kicking into feel-good anthems ‘Rockstar’ and ‘Don’t Wait Til Tomorrow’. Trialling their upcoming EP ‘Seize The Power,’ Yonaka win over even the most hard-faced members of the crowd with ‘Raise Your Glass’ which prompts a sea of plastic cups, cans, hip flasks and drinking horns into the air.
A small, tense, build-up followed by the scream of “SLEEPS SOCIETY!” is all it takes to send the crowd into absolute chaos as While She Sleeps burst into a set that throws their name into the conversation of future festival headliners. The majority of the set is dedicated to their triumphant new album as the metalcore band rip through ‘ANTI-SOCIAL’, ‘YOU ARE ALL YOU NEED’ and ‘NERVOUS’. Frontman Loz Taylor completely embraces the return of live music as he sprints through the crowd to climb the soundstage as a timely reminder that there is always room for the showman in modern metal.
As the production ramps up over the Saturday evening, Creeper need no further invitation to make a theatrical statement. Hinting at their forthcoming ‘American Noir’ EP, Will Gould arrives on stage with sparks flying around him and caped in an American flag. Where do you go from there? Well, Hannah Greenwood takes centre stage in a wedding dress for a crack at ‘Crickets’, as you do. Beyond the extra levels of drama, Creeper’s setlist alone is deserving enough of a bigger stage. ‘Suzanne’ raises the roof and ‘Misery’ brings it crashing down again, and in the new single ‘Midnight’ they seem to have recaptured the rock opera magic that made their debut a gold-plated classic.
It’s a headline slot 15 years in the making, and as the darkness begins to fall over Donington, it’s a performance in which Enter Shikari themselves become fully realised. The enormous stage is decorated head-to-toe in light strips; as always, the band’s ambition for their stage production is matched by the innovation of their sound. The set is the band’s first in two years, and alongside the new lighting production, confetti cannons, streamers and a career-spanning set, it’s a complete headline performance and a promising introduction to the ‘Nothing Is True & Everything is Possible’ era of Shikari.
Loathe crush the Main Stage with an assured performance on Sunday afternoon. Showing off last year’s standout ‘I Let It In And It Took Everything’, they seamlessly blend the confrontational and bruising riffs in ‘Aggressive Evolution’ and ‘Broken Vision Rhythm’ with the experimental and textured moments of ‘Screaming’ to lay bare the entire range of the palette they’re now painting with. A lot of that goes thanks to singer Kadeem France’s clean vocals becoming more prominent in Loathe’s sound, and it’s his vocals left stark as technical difficulties curtail the end of their set during ‘Two-Way Mirror’ as, coincidentally, he sings “Give me the sounds I need to hear”. They never arrive, but Loathe still leave the stage victorious, if a few minutes early.
The moustachioed maverick is accompanied by Wargasm as he kicks off a blistering set with the aptly pessimistic ‘The Future Is Dead’. But, never one to take himself too seriously, Lenman blasts out his “extreme heavy metal” rendition of the Popeye theme tune with the same conviction he gave to the deep, introspective cut ‘The Road To Right’ from last year’s mini-album. Rounding off with the only Rueben throwback of his set in ‘Stuck In My Throat’, Jamie Lenman’s set is over all too quickly.
Bouncy pop-punk hits ‘Tring Quarry’ and ‘Strangers’ and a cover of Linkin Park’s ‘Givin’ Up’ – which is tagged on late as the band realise they’re playing a slot 20 minutes longer than they expected – receive the biggest reception of Trash Boat’s set. Equally melodic numbers like ‘Shade’, and the message of acceptance in the new single ‘He’s So Good’ go down well too ahead of the arrival of their new album, ‘Don’t You Feel Amazing?’.